Tuesday, September 30, 2008

struggle with workplace diversity

White folks who work in predominantly white workplaces are rarely bothered to any great degree by a lack of non-white colleagues. Sometimes, though, they do become concerned enough to confront the lack of "diversity" in their workplace. This concern can lead to various efforts to "address" said lack of diversity, such as mildly altered hiring practices. Another common workplace effort is the "diversity seminar."

In my experience, these sessions focus mostly on teaching white folks how to better understand non-white coworkers, clients, and/or customers, and very little on whatever it is that's "white" about white folks--in fact, the word "white" rarely even gets mentioned. White workers commonly resent being told that they don't already know how to work alongside non-white workers, and they often roll their eyes at the mere mention of "diversity training."

Since white people as a group are still in power, and since most of them have been socialized into largely unconscious modes of racist thought and behavior, you might think that "diversity training" would include some direct, intensive untraining of common white tendencies. It seems, however, that in most diversity sessions, if whiteness ever does receive direct attention, white folks often get offended at how they're being portrayed, instead of educated about their own tendencies and habits.

Take the case of Dennis Supple, a heating and air-conditioning mechanic working for the city of Denver. During a diversity training session, Supple's hackles were raised by the portrayal of a white, blue-collar worker like himself, in a video entitled "Laughing Matters — Think About It."

As the following clip from the video illustrates, its producers' method for teaching workers that racist jokes are hurtful to others was to show a character named Billy cracking such jokes in the workplace.

The eight-minute anti-racism video is itself racist, Dennis Supple said, because all it does is "hammer the white guy." By portraying "Billy" as the sole racist joke-cracker, the video supposedly does the opposite of what it claims to be doing, because it perpetuates a racist stereotype, that of the white, blue-collar ignoramus. Supple also said that the city of Denver's diversity program as a whole is "racially motivated against white males."

Supple threatened to use the equity in his house to sue the city into halting its use of the video. This threat, and the publicity it generated, were apparently enough to prompt city officials into pulling the video. Whether Supple was really motivated by the perceived insult of a resemblance between himself and "Billy," or instead by his more general resentment over the very idea of "diversity training," remains for me an open question.

As the case of Dennis vs. "Billy" illustrates, getting white folks to reconsider their actions in a racially diverse workplace is usually awkward, at best. White workers often feel that such "training" talks down to them, and they usually don't see a race-related problem that requires training in the first place (and if they do see such a problem, it's usually something they consider racist against whites, such as "affirmative action").

It seems to me that another problem with such sessions is that whiteness mostly goes unnamed. As a result, white people can feel left out in a way, and yet, vaguely uncomfortable, as if they, the unnamed yet targeted "white people," are being blamed for all of the problems that brought about diversity training in the first place.

Would naming and discussing whiteness more directly in such sessions make them more effective? Or would confronting the socially induced proclivities of white people take too much time and unlearning (or untraining) by white workers, and make them even more resentful of the whole process?

YouTube has tons of clips from "diversity training" videos; some are advertisements for training providers, while others satirize such efforts. The actors in the video below poke especially effective fun at clueless white producers of diversity training materials, highlighting as they do so several common forms of white oblivion.

Have you participated in workplace diversity training efforts? Did they directly address whiteness somehow? Did any methods or parts of this training strike you as especially successful, or unsuccessful? And does it seem any better or worse for non-white people to sit through these sessions?


  1. I struggle with this issue at my job. I work at a predominantly white mental health clinic and have mentioned many times the need for the agency to hire more people of color.

    What I think really needs to happen at my agency is what the Western States Center proposes here:


  2. Where I work, we are very intentional about our anti-racism training. We require every employee to go through it, every board member and even invite our high level volunteers to participate.

    I think calling it 'anti-racism' training is the key to discussing the things you mention.

    By calling it anti-racism training, we have an opportunity to discuss privilege, institutionalized white supremacy, institutionalized racism and we require all of our employees to establish anti-racism goals as part of our evaluation process.

    To me, this takes 'diversity training' one step further than usual. It demands accountability, it establishes an ideological baseline for the organization, allowing it to be pretty clear showing employees what's expected and what's not.

    The problem with most diversity training is that it's stuck on the whole behavior thing when folks are real good at giving themselves cookies for not behaving in stereotypically racist ways. (i.e., 'As long as I don't call my assistant a derogatory name, I am not racist.') The other problem I have in most diversity trainings is that it's stuck on this problematic idea of 'tolerance.' if anti-racist work was just about tolerance, then why not just call the session 'Workplace Etiquette'? Tolerating others isn't enough to foster an environment of diverse, racial equality.

    Most corporate attempts to instill 'diversity' are tepid because the corporate entity fails to look at its own history, its own practices, and even its own work product from an anti-racist POV. In other words, they aren't really committed to it. Diversity discussions allow the company to get off the hook because you can talk about recruitment, HR or the pool of grads or qualified hires, but you don't talk about the company's participation in propping up white capitalist supremacy.

    And without talking about that, what's the point?

    (I also think 'diversity' trainings fail because they fail to look at diversity in an intersectional way. They're often very, literally, black and white; they don't take on the gendered dynamic of race relations or issues of cultural difference that go beyond badly-acting white people. For instance, diversity training is not going to successfully address the sexist treatment of a U.S.-born Latina assistant by her not-US-born East Indian male managing director, you know?)

  3. http://www.raceintheworkplace.com/2007/05/29/diversity-training-doesnt-work-heres-why/

  4. Diversity trainings have always been torture for me. If it's a small group of just your office and you're the only black there or one of two, they stare at you or ask you if this or that is true and you're elevated to being spokesperson for your race. If you don't answer the questions like they want or expect you to, you can expect a cold shoulder long after the training. It can cost you a promotion too if you're perceived as 'angry' or 'radical'.

  5. The thing that gets me about this whole argument of white privilege is the denial of other whites towards it.

    There are some whites that say they are "color blind". These are the ones in my experience that seem to think that they have done enough.

    Yet they are the same people that oppose affirmative action or even hate crimes bills.

    And these too are the same people that roll their eyes at
    "diversity training". They think because they don't see color that they have done enough.

    For their own shallow thinking, that is just it, they have.

    But they deny everything that is diverse. It is a strange mind set.

  6. topper said:

    Yet they are the same people that oppose affirmative action or even hate crimes bills.

    I am not white, and I think that hate crimes bills should be eliminated. Most violent crimes (and some non-violent ones, too) are acts of hatred toward another human being. (I am excluding an act of self-defense, which might result in the death, for instance, of the person whom the victim has defended herself against.) If not hatred, then a total lack of respect of the victim's humanity by the perpetrator of the criminal act.

    Hate crimes bills, for a lack of a better word, but one that I hope paints the picture for me, "sub-humanise" the victim. It places any victim who is not a white, heterosexual, Christian, [usually] male in a legal lower class--in a lesser victim status. The laws that are on the books for a crime committed against those in the American "privileged" class (because of race or gender or sexual orientation or religious affiliation) are sufficient to be applied for those, who are victims, who are not of the privileged class in this nation.

    It should not be, we should not accept, that in order for a Matthew Sheppard (the young homosexual man who was tortured, then killed, on a fence) or the middle-aged black man in Texas (who several white men chained him to their pickup truck and dragged his body for several miles, thus tearing him to shreds and killing him) to have justice served that we have to make the crime committed against them "special" so that the perpetrators of those heinous acts will be prosecuted and punished. Because what you do, is when you make a few of these cases of crimes committed against those who are non-privileged, when you turn them into special cases, then it allows for the U.S. justice system to not have to prosecute the remainder of similar cases of non-privileged persons equally.

  7. But there is a difference between crimes classified as hate crimes and other crimes, primarily because of intent. (And this is probably the only time I'll argue on the side of intention.)

    The intent behind a hate crime is based on the protected class of the victim. Sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, religion, creed and ability are protected classes. It's illegal to discriminate based on these classifications and, as well, crimes based on these classifications get a special tag: hate crimes. Basically, Matthew Shephard wasn't merely killed because his murderers wanted to kill some random person. They killed him for a specific reason - they hated him because he was gay. His killing was not merely an individual killing, but an act of hatred and intimidation against an entire, specific group.

    The recent gassing incident at the Dayton mosque is, in my mind, a hate crime. It was a deliberate, premeditated act of hatred and terrorism against a group of people based on religious as well as ethnic difference. For the local law enforcement to not call it such is incomprehensible to me.

    Yes, the murder of one is an act of violence against human kind, but calling a hate crime a hate crime specifies what's really behind it, beyond mere criminality.

    But what's also incomprehensible to me is why gender isn't included as a protected class. I would classify rape as a hate crime, but so far, no such luck in getting that classification changed.

  8. Is it racist to say:

    (a) Multiculturalism has never worked, historically, and like all forms of pluralism is destined to fail

    (b) I prefer to be with people like myself, which as you note in a post above means not generic "white" people who don't exist, but those of Northern European descent and traditional values?

    I'd really like a working definition of racist. It sounds like racism means not wanting to live in a multicultural state.

    But if we have freedom, and if there's no conclusive proof that multiculturalism even works, why are we required to live in a multicultural state?

  9. Vijay, your questions are pretty close to nonsensical. One look at your blog tells me why. It also tells me that trying to answer your questions would be a waste of time.

  10. I went through a bit of a culture shock when I moved from a large city to a small town. Here racism is far more overt and requires a stronger will to deal with. I found in the workplace that people make racist statements all of the time. It is quite often deemed that if they are not talk about blacks (of which I am one) then it is not a racist thing to say. Something is only deemed racist when said directly to the minority in question.
    When I have pointed out the fallacy of this it has gotten me nowhere. I find that people pay a lot of lip service to equality but their language is often peppered with oppressive euphemisms that are specifically meant to other and marginalize. They very few HR seminars that have attended that addressed this issue turned POC into objects rather than subjects thus reaffirming the racism that it was claiming to combat. I further found it problematic that all of the leaders of the seminar were white. White people may act as allies in the fight to end racism however controlling the conversation in this way only legitimizes white voices.

  11. "Is it racist to say:

    (a) Multiculturalism has never worked, historically, and like all forms of pluralism is destined to fail

    (b) I prefer to be with people like myself, which as you note in a post above means not generic "white" people who don't exist, but those of Northern European descent and traditional values?


    "why are we required to live in a multicultural state?"

    If you can find a monocultural state made up exclusively of people of northern european ancestry, go live there.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code